There are hundreds of different types of surgery used to diagnose, stage and treat cancer. Some of the more common types are outlined in this section – some are minor and are more commonly called procedures, while others are much bigger operations.
For more information about surgery to treat specific types of cancer, refer to our the information about the type of cancer you have.
Surgery to diagnose and stage cancer
For most cancers, abnormal tissue must be removed and examined to make a diagnosis, find out how large the cancer is, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. Staging can help the doctor work out the likely outcome of your cancer (prognosis) and recommend the best treatment for you.
Most of the time staging is done before surgery using imaging scans such as CT, PET–CT or MRI, and a needle biopsy (see below). Sometimes, the stage is revised after surgery. This means that the surgery to remove the cancer will help the medical team work out how far the tumour has spread throughout the body. All tissue and fluids removed during surgery are examined for cancer cells by a pathologist.
“During surgery, the doctor removed the tumour and an area around it. The pathology results showed there was cancer in the margin, and I had to have further surgery.” - Page
Having a biopsy
Needle biopsies are commonly used to remove a small sample of cells or tissue from the area of concern. If the cancer can’t be diagnosed from a tissue sample, you may have surgery to remove the mass so it can be checked for signs of cancer. The biopsy results are used to diagnose and stage cancer.
A biopsy is sometimes done in the doctor’s rooms, but it may also be done at a radiology practice, in hospital, or as day surgery. It is often done using an ultrasound or CT scan to guide the needle to the correct place.
Before the biopsy, you will usually have a local anaesthetic to numb the area. In some cases you may need sedation or a general anaesthetic, which puts you to sleep
After the biopsy, a pathologist examines the sample under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells. The initial results are usually available in a few days, though the full report can take up to 10 days.
Types of biopsy
The types of biopsy used to diagnose and stage cancer include:
- fine needle aspiration or biopsy – a thin needle is used to remove a sample of fluid and tissue from the tumour
- punch biopsy – a special tool is used to remove a circle of tissue
- core biopsy – a hollow needle is inserted through the skin to remove a thin piece of tissue (a core)
- surgical biopsy – the surgeon cuts into the body to remove all or part of a tumour. It may be called an excision biopsy (removes the whole tumour) or incision biopsy (removes part of the tumour)
- endoscopic biopsy/endoscopy – a flexible tube with a light and camera (endoscope) is inserted into the body through a natural opening (such as the mouth) or a small cut. This lets the doctor see inside the body and take a tissue sample. Endoscopies are named after the part of the body affected, e.g. colonoscopy (colon), gastroscopy (stomach)
Types of endoscopy
|Part of body tested
|Where the tube is inserted
|Lungs or respiratory tract
|Mouth or nose
|Vagina and cervix
|A speculum is inserted into the vagina to view the organs
|Stomach and small intestine
|Stomach, liver, female reproductive organs
|Small cuts in the abdomen
|Larynx (voice box)
|Small cut in the lower neck
|Small cut in the chest
Surgery to treat cancer
The type of surgery used to treat cancer depends on the location and stage of the cancer and your general health. The table below lists some of the more common types of cancer surgery.
|Cervical, ovarian, uterine
|Laryngeal (voice box)
|Pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple’s procedure)
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and University of Sydney, NSW; Chanelle Curnuck, Dietitian – Dietetics and Nutrition, Sir Charles Gairdner Osborne Park Health Care Group, WA; Department of Anaesthetics, Perioperative Medicine and Pain Medicine, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Feeney, Nurse Unit Manager, Breast, Endocrine and Gynaecology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Rohan Miegel, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, University of Queensland and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Suzanne Ryan, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of General Surgery, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Surgery - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in May 2023.